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Peer Support:

Art of Self-Disclosure

Peggy Swarbrick Ph.D., FAOTA, Research Professor, Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology and Associate Director of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies; Director, Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey Wellness Institute

Selective self-disclosure (sharing a recovery/wellness narrative) is a delicate yet powerful tool for peer support specialists to forge meaningful connections with the individuals they support. In the realm of healthcare, where trust and rapport are paramount, the ability to share relevant aspects of oneself can enhance the therapeutic relationship and inspire individuals to take charge of their health and well-being. However, it is crucial for peer support specialists to practice discernment and refinement in what they choose to disclose, ensuring that their disclosures are not burdensome or overwhelming to the person they are supporting.

The art of selective self-disclosure lies in the ability to share snippets of personal experiences or insights that resonate with the individual’s situation without overshadowing their needs or challenges. Peer support specialists must recognize that the purpose of self-disclosure is not to fill time or silence but to establish a genuine connection and foster empathy. By carefully selecting what to share, peer support specialists can demonstrate empathy and understanding while validating the individual’s experiences.

Moreover, selective self-disclosure allows peer support specialists to humanize the healthcare experience and break down barriers that may exist between them and the individuals they support. Sharing personal anecdotes or struggles can convey a sense of vulnerability and authenticity, which can in turn encourage individuals to open up about their own concerns and fears. This shared vulnerability creates a safe space for honest communication and fosters a sense of partnership in the journey towards better health outcomes.

However, it is essential for peer support specialists to exercise caution and sensitivity when sharing personal information. Disclosures should be tailored to the individual’s needs and preferences, considering their comfort level and emotional state. Peer support specialists must be mindful not to overshare or divulge information that may evoke feelings of shame or inadequacy in the individual. Additionally, self-disclosures should never be used to showcase expertise or competence in a way that could potentially diminish the individual’s sense of agency or self-worth.

In conclusion, selective self-disclosure is a valuable tool for peer support specialists to connect with and inspire the individuals they support. By sharing relevant aspects of themselves in a thoughtful and deliberate manner, peer support specialists can cultivate trust, empathy, and partnership in the therapeutic relationship. However, it is imperative for peer support specialists to practice and refine the art of self-disclosure, ensuring that their disclosures are useful, supportive, and tailored to the individual’s needs. Ultimately, selective self-disclosure is not just about sharing information; it is about building bridges and fostering authentic connections that empower individuals to achieve their health goals.

Practicing and refining selective self-disclosure requires a thoughtful and intentional approach. It is an art, so practice and thoughtful self-reflection is key. Here are some steps that peer support specialists can take to hone this skill:

  • Reflect on Purpose: Before sharing personal information, take a moment to reflect on the purpose behind the disclosure. Ask yourself whether sharing this information will truly benefit the individual you are supporting and enhance the therapeutic relationship. Avoid sharing for the sake of filling silence or showcasing yourself.
  • Consider Relevance: Assess the relevance of the information you intend to share to the individual’s current situation or concerns. Focus on sharing insights or experiences that directly relate to their needs and challenges. Avoid divulging personal details that are unrelated or may distract from the focus of the conversation. ┬áCheck in with the person early in the conversation to find out whether it is something the person wants to talk about.
  • Assess Appropriateness: Consider the appropriateness of the disclosure given the individual’s emotional state and cultural background. Be mindful of cultural differences and norms regarding self-disclosure.
  • Practice Empathy: Put yourself in the individual’s shoes and consider how they might perceive your disclosure. Ask yourself whether sharing this information will help them feel understood, supported, and validated. Avoid sharing information that may inadvertently cause distress or discomfort.
  • Tailor to Individual Needs: Recognize that each individual is unique, and what may be appropriate to share with one person may not be suitable for another. Tailor your disclosures to the individual’s preferences, comfort level, and communication style. Respect their boundaries and avoid pressuring them to share more than they are comfortable with.
  • Seek Feedback: After sharing personal information, take time to reflect on the impact of your disclosure. Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal cues from the individual to gauge their response. Seek feedback from trusted colleagues or supervisors to evaluate the effectiveness of your self-disclosure and identify areas for improvement.
  • Practice Self-Reflection: Continuously reflect on your own motives and biases when engaging in selective self-disclosure. Be honest with yourself about your intentions and be open to learning from both successful and unsuccessful experiences. Use self-reflection as an opportunity for growth and refinement.

By following these steps and approaching selective self-disclosure with sensitivity and mindfulness, peer support specialists can cultivate a deeper connection with the individuals they support while respecting their autonomy and dignity. Self-disclosure is a skill that can be developed and refined over time, and each interaction provides an opportunity for learning and growth.